"Gay Bingo," the T-shirts read. "Just like normal bingo, only way more fun."
Just like normal bingo -- except that the emcee's a sex advice columnist named
Dan Savage who dresses in drag and seeks out Republicans for public
humiliation. Just like normal bingo -- except that if the caller shouts "O-69" the
crowd is expected, no, required, to stand up, do the wave, and moan, "Ohhhhhh,
69!" Just like normal bingo -- except that in Seattle, where the aforementioned
T-shirts are worn, gay bingo has been attracting large crowds of men and
women twice a month since fall, 1992, and so far has raised a quarter of a
million dollars for persons living with AIDS.
Whether it's the opportunity for some easy conviviality away from the bar
atmosphere or simply the chance to win some easy money (or raise cash for a
cause), gays and lesbians are shouting "Bingo!" in large numbers. In
Philadelphia, bingo's been a staple at the local lesbian and gay community center
since 1989. And games have recently been popping up everywhere from London
to Hollywood (where there's a regular session of "Lesbo Bingo"). But gay bingo
is biggest in Seattle.
The whole thing began with "one of those driving-home-from-work moments,"
remembers Judy Werle, director of development for the Chicken Soup Brigade,
a Seattle organization which provides everyday assistance (meals, groceries,
home chores, transport) to people living with AIDS. She was tossing around
fundraising ideas when it occurred to her, "I bet bingo would be fun." Only one
problem -- she didn't know beans (beano?) about the game. So she rounded up a
few fanatics and went on a tour of local parlors.
"It was nothing like what I imagined," she said. "People had troll dolls and
lucky candles and all sorts of shit, and they all looked like they'd been there
way too long."
And the callers weren't too impressive, either, calling out the numbers in
flat, unexcited tones. "They didn't seem to notice '0-69' is anything but another
But at least Werle was learning the basics. After locating some used bingo
equipment ("a flashboard, daubers and other things I never knew anything
about") and dealing with the gambling commission ("they have this incredibly
thick gambling rulebook that doesn't mention drag queens anywhere in it"), all
she needed was a place. A ,'3 place that wouldn't mind hosting something called
"Gay Bingo." Schools were "out of the question," so she looked into church
spaces. But the Catholics didn't want to be associated with "gay," and the
Protestants didn't want to be associated with gambling. "So we went with a
It didn't take long for word to spread. "We had lines around the block
immediately," and now the Saturday-night games are consistently sold out,
with 500 players paying $10 admission (and more for special games) each time.
Success may have something to do with the area's pre-existing bingo
subculture; Washington is home to two national bingo newspapers, after all. But
it's probably more to do with Dan Savage.
Savage is a nationally syndicated columnist whose home base is the
alternative weekly The Stranger<>. He looks great in a gown and delights in
shaming members of the audience who don't play their cards right, or their
politics left (one Republican walked out after suffering the Savage treatment).
Straight folks who wander into the festivities get special attention: at one
recent session, Savage introduced the crowd to a pregnant Philadelphia woman
who was visiting Seattle with gay friends, and then invited everyone to wiggle
their fingers in the direction of her abdomen and chant, "Let it be a dyke! Let it
be a dyke!"
Other attractions include the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, faux nuns who
verify whether players really have a bingo ("We wanted to get the Church into
it," says Werle); the Bunnies, "a group of attractive boys -- er, MEN! -- who
run around in tails and bunny ears and shorts" selling T-shirts and special game
cards; and the Gay Men's chorus singing "Hallelujah!" whenever somebody gets
Then there are the callers: local celebrities and such well-known gay figures
as Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, made famous for being drummed out of the
military and being played on TV by Glenn Close. Due up soon are gay poster boys
Bob and Rod, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, and Peg Phillips from Northern
Exposure<>. Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt, a hilarious comedy duo, show up in a
variety of configurations, including the Spudds, a mother-daughter team, and
Dos Fallopia, a takeoff on women's music acts.
Prizes have appeal, too. Besides cash and gift certificates, occasional lucky
players win "the drag queen makeover": after you win, you go off to get "done"
and come back as a drag queen to call the last game. So far, the only two people
who've won this prize have been straight men, "maybe the only two who ever
came," says Werle. "We couldn't get 'em out of those dresses."
Just to make sure that no one forgets the higher purpose of playing, Seattle
has established the Gay Bingo Pledge. At the beginning of each session, Savage
makes everyone stand, hold their daubers in their right hands, and repeat after
him: "I swear to remember I'm here to raise money for people living with AIDS
and this is only a stupid game."